New Mexico finally has clarity about how decisions will be made concerning the future of energy in this state.
That came with the recent state Supreme Court ruling that the Public Regulation Commission must consider the decommissioning of the San Juan Generating Station using the comprehensive 2019 Energy Transition Act as its guide.
This matters, because without the act, important protections for workers in the Four Corners region would not kick in and the ambitious goals for renewable energy could go unmet. The comprehensive law lays out the path to guide New Mexico from reliance on fossil fuels for energy to a more robust mix of renewable energy sources.
What remains to be clarified, though, is the future of the Public Regulation Commission — a constitutionally mandated body charged with regulating utilities, transportation and other industries in the state. The PRC, established as a replacement for the scandal-plagued State Corporation Commission, carries enormous responsibility. Its decisions are crucial for the future growth and energy security of the state.
That’s why proposals to reform the PRC being considered at the Legislature remain a high priority, even during a 30-day session.
There are two possibilities. One is a constitutional amendment, which if approved, would change the nature of the PRC from an elected to an appointed body. The complexities of regulating utilities are such that commissioners require greater knowledge of the fields they are charged with overseeing. We have said in the past and still believe that an appointed commission — by the governor, with staggered terms and Senate confirmation — would ensure consistent, firm decisions.
There’s no guarantee that voters would approve such an amendment, however. After all, they would be giving up the power to elect PRC representatives. However, considering how low-profile these important races remain, perhaps citizens will cede power in return for a more professional, knowledgeable commission.
Both the PRC and its predecessor have failed to demonstrate they can function well and efficiently. Feuding members and personal differences plague the current body, making it nearly inoperable at times. In the recent past, members have faced felony and sexual harassment charges. A 2017 report concluded that the PRC’s bad reputation is one reason it cannot hire and keep adequate staff. Thus, a move toward appointing commissioners whose backgrounds and experience will be vetted before confirmation.
Even without an appointed PRC, two good-government legislators, Democratic Reps. Linda Trujillo of Santa Fe and Nathan Small of Las Cruces, have another approach to reform the PRC in case a constitutional amendment fails.
The proposal would restructure an elected PRC, moving responsibilities to a new Office of PRC Regulatory Affairs in the state Regulation and Licensing Department. A Commission Resource Division would be charged with helping commissioners carry out their duties, including conducting hearings, writing rules and issuing final orders on the many matters the PRC is charged with overseeing.
The proposal, House Bill 11, also would allow the governor the authority to appoint the PRC’s chief of staff and the director of the regulatory affairs commission. The idea, say sponsors, is to allow the hired workers to deal with policy in a measured, professional manner and remove the political interference of elected commissioners. These top positions could be fired only for cause, removing the threat of removal when a new PRC majority takes office. Terms would be staggered, too.
By professionalizing the structure of the PRC, the agency could fill positions more readily, eliminate vacancies and hire experts on policy. Wisely, the legislation comes with a 13 percent increase in the PRC budget so the agency can fulfill its many responsibilities without the burden of being short-staffed and underfunded.
It’s encouraging to see that Commissioners Cynthia Hall and Stephen Fischmann say the new structure would make the PRC work better. That’s not the view of Commissioners Valerie Espinoza and Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, who are arguing that the commission’s independence would be compromised.
Direct election is no guarantee of independence, however, especially considering campaign donations play such a big role.
If the constitutional amendment fails, approving House Bill 11 still would assure a more focused PRC with an empowered regulatory agency. That can’t be the end, though. Reforms must be monitored to ensure they deliver as promised, especially considering the histories of both the current PRC and its predecessor State Corporation Commission. They started out strong and fell short.
Today, with a fast-moving regulatory landscape, New Mexico needs a structure that works. That requires Public Regulation Commission reform — sooner than later.